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Ryan Patrick O'Shea Foundation fosters dialogue about suicide

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Suicide is a difficult topic to discuss, but for the O’Shea family, talking about it is the best way to heal, and to help others. For nearly a year, the Ryan Patrick O’Shea Foundation, based in Rockville Centre, has been raising awareness of this growing problem, and was recognized by the State Legislature in Albany last month for its efforts to promote suicide prevention. On Jan. 14, the Legislature adopted a resolution commending the foundation for its focus on mental health awareness and reducing self-destructive behavior though support and education.

The foundation was formed shortly after 2018 South Side High School graduate Ryan O’Shea died by suicide at age 18 on Jan. 11, 2019. His parents, Mary and John O’Shea, are the foundation’s president and vice president, and they, along with nine other board members, have worked to foster a dialog about a subject that makes most people uncomfortable.

“There truly is a need to bring mental illness and suicide out of the darkness,” John O’Shea said.

State Assemblywoman Judy Griffin, a Democrat from Rockville Centre, addressed the State Assembly on Jan. 14, saying that the town was “devastated” after Ryan’s death, and commended the O’Shea family for being able to help others after an unexpected tragedy.

“They courageously decided to turn this insurmountable loss of their charismatic, intelligent, athletic and compassionate son into a way to help bring awareness to mental health and support for suicide,” Griffin said. “In turn, they are helping to impact the lives of other teenagers, which truly is a selfless act.” 

On the same day, Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, noted in the Senate chamber how the O’Shea foundation’s work has helped de-stigmatize discussions of suicide and mental health issues. Kaminsky called the O’Shea family “leaders” in the community.

“And their work in Ryan’s honor has already changed the community, and will continue to change other communities,” he said. “Their work will continue to go on with our support, because it must. We must take this conversation out of the shadows and into the light.”

John O’Shea that said hearing how his son affected so many others was “very heartwarming.” More important, he added, was bringing the conversation to lawmakers in Albany. “It reached a lot of people, and both [Griffin and Kaminsky] spoke so well on the need for everyone to get together and make something happen,” O’Shea said. “Society needs to make a change, needs to do something radical, because what is happening is at out-of-control epidemic levels.”

New York state has seen a dramatic increase in suicides in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a 28.8 percent increase from 1999 to 2016. Nationwide, 145 people die every day by suicide, which equals the number of deaths from opioid overdoses.

“We talk and plan about what we have to do to correct the opioid crisis,” O’Shea said, “yet we don’t talk about what we have to do to combat suicide.”

In addition to increased awareness, he said, he would like to see government-funded prevention programs and insurance plans that cover the cost of psychiatrist visits. 

“The biggest accomplishment the foundation has made is letting people speak and talk about suicide,” O’Shea said. “The most important thing you can do for anyone in crisis is to ask them, ‘Are you thinking about committing suicide?’ Those few words are the most powerful thing you can do to help somebody.”

The foundation’s board members have taken classes and seminars over the past year to learn how to have these difficult conversations. O’Shea said one of the biggest misconceptions many parents have is that talking about suicide will plant the seed that can lead to suicide.

“That’s not true,” he said. “If you talk about it, you give them the opportunity to talk back to you about suicide, depression or mental illness. The parents have to open that line of communication with their kids.”

Foundation members are also trying to figure out why the number of suicides is increasing. From their research, O’Shea and board Director Kathy Lamacchia have concluded that smartphone and social media use are  factors.

“Cellphone use is a problem for children,” Lamacchia said, “and lack of interpersonal communication is a factor.” 

With children using screens so often, she said, they do not know how to talk to people, they are constantly being assaulted by information, and they do not know how to be bored. And everything is public, from arguments to social gatherings, which can create feelings of anxiety and isolation.

“If you disconnect, your whole being is calmer,” O’Shea said. “We need to teach our kids to have a balance.”

The foundation is planning to initiate a yoga/mindfulness program in all five Rockville Centre elementary schools. The sessions will be conducted by certified yoga instructors, and will focus on giving children the tools to handle stress. Additionally, the organization started a three-week “no social media challenge” on Feb. 1, encouraging people to avoid social media for 23 days to reduce anxiety. Foundation members also plan to meet with civic groups about sponsoring programs in the schools that will teach staff and students to recognize the signs of mental illness, depression and suicide so they can help those who exhibit them.

“We’re right on the cusp of doing these major things that I think will be an unbelievable advantage to the students that need it,” O’Shea said. “Giving our youth the tools to get through a hard time is very important to our foundation.”